The reason is the global impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
From Shanghai to Rome, from London to New York, we’re seeing the most populous cities in the world turn into ghost towns overnight.
So while the Japanese feel that holding the Olympics and Paralympics may be impossible this year, they are doing so in a country that is surprisingly sociable. While the same Kyodo News survey showed that 44.3% of the Japanese survey disapproved of the government measures, people are out and about in ways that would be shocking to people elsewhere in the world.
Is Japan exceptional? We’ll have to wait for the research after the pandemic has run its course, but this article cites several reasons why Japan may be ahead of the curve when it comes to fighting off coronavirus:
the most vulnerable demographic – 65 and older – is a very healthy one in Japan
Japan’s national health system is accessible to all and inexpensive
Senior care services are abundant and inexpensive
Japanese hospitals are experienced in detecting early and treating respiratory ailments in the elderly, and
Japanese are very hygiene conscious, and do not have customs like hand shaking and kissing
Two months after the horror show that was the Diamond Princess, the Japanese health system is handling the comparatively small number of cases coming its way.
So while corporations across Japan have cancelled large events and large meetings, implemented policies that restrict movement and encourage work from home, there are still many people commuting to work in buses and trains.
While people in Japan are discouraged not to gather for cherry blossom viewing parties as the sakura begin to bloom this weekend, the restaurants and shopping areas are still filled with people.
Public schools all over Japan closed down a couple of weeks before the beginning of Spring Break. And yet, only several weeks later, the government is now recommending that schools re-open (assuming there are no new confirmed cases) as planned at the beginning of the new academic year in April.
To the outsider, Japan may be compared to Nero fiddling while his city burned. But so far, the numbers are not indicating a city on fire.
Yes, it is strange to live in Japan today. Surreal in fact.
I think I’ll go for a walk among the cherry trees.
We followed the story of the Diamond Princess as if we were binge watching a Stephen King adaptation on Netflix – with fascination and fear.
The two-week quarantine of the 3,711 passengers and crew on the British grand-class cruise ship docked at Yokohama harbor was a constant reminder to the Japanese of how close the coronavirus outbreak has come to Japanese shores. The death of two elderly passengers on board the Diamond Princess on February 20 at the end of the quarantine intensified the concern over the Japanese government’s decision to release hundreds of passengers who tested negative for the virus.
Yashiro Mori, former Japan prime minister and current president of the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games pointed at the elephant in the room and said:
I would like to make it clear again that we are not considering a cancellation or postponement of the games. Let me make that clear.
That was February 13, just before the cases of coronavirus began to crisscross the country.
Dr. Hitoshi Oshitani, a Japanese virologist, said on February 19 that the Olympics could not take place today.
“I’m not sure [of] the situation in Japan at the end of July,” he said at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan on Wednesday, as per The Associated Press. “We need to find the best way to have a safe Olympics. Right now we don’t have an effective strategy, and I think it may be difficult to have the Olympics [now]. But by the end of July we may be in a different situation.”
Or we may not be.
We have no cure for coronavirus right now. We understand so little about the latest virus outbreak. And in the absence of clear facts, what often fills the void is doubt, speculation and fear.
Am I safe? Will a cure be found in time? Will the virus burn out as the temperature climbs?
Will the Olympics be cancelled, its sunk cost like an albatross around the necks of the country, the IOC and the massive number of organizations and businesses that have invested in these Games?
Or will the Olympics rise like a Phoenix, overcoming crisis, sending our spirits aloft?
Note: This article was written on February 22, in the midst of daily changes and updates regarding the coronavirus in Japan.
It’s amazing to think – over one third of all 44 venues for the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympics are in the Tokyo Bay, landfill property developed over centuries, but particularly over the past 100 years.
According to Associate Professor Robin Kietlinski of LaGuardia Community College of the City University of New York, 16 venues for the Olympics will be held in what had been previously the open waters of Tokyo Bay.
In a talk Dr. Kietlinski gave on Friday, September 27, 2019, at the newly opened Japan campus of Temple University, she explained how the physical landmass of Tokyo along the Western edges of Tokyo Bay began to grow when Edo was established in the early 17th century as the de facto capital of Japan during the Tokugawa shogunate. But in the aftermath of the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, and the firebombings of Tokyo during World War II, rubble was poured into the western and northern shores of Tokyo Bay.
Around the time of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, when the engine of the Japanese economic miracle was really beginning to rev, the waste produced by the tremendous growth in population, industry and consumerism was growing faster than they could manage it. Tokyo waterways were polluted and odorous. The landfill in Tokyo Bay became the dumping grounds of Tokyo, and ran rampant with rodents and flies. As I wrote in this blog post on Yumenoshima, site of Olympic archery next year, the Self Defense Forces had to be called into exterminate the fly infestation.
Today, as Dr. Kietlinski explained, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government has built waste processing plants that pulverize and incinerate waste. All of the incinerator ash is then used for landfill in Tokyo Bay, continuing plans to increase the terrestrial space in the bay, according to this explanation of waste management from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.
Here is a list of all of the venues, including the Olympic Village, that sit in the middle of Tokyo Bay. You can see get more information on the Olympic venues here.
Aomi Urban Sports Park – 3×3 basketball, sport climbing
Ariake Arena – volleyball
Ariake Gymnastics Center -gymnastics
Ariake Tennis Park – tennis
Ariake Urban Sports Park – BMX, skateboarding
IBC/MPC (International Broadcast Center/Main Press Center)
Kasai Canoe Slalom Center – canoe (slalom)
Odaiba Marine Park – marathon swimming, triathlon
Oi Hockey Stadium – field hockey
Tatsumi Water Polo Center – water polo
Tokyo Aquatics Center – swimming, diving, synchronized swimming
My book on the 1964 Tokyo Olympics is now available. And through July 31, you can buy the Kindle (ebook) version for 99 cents, or the equivalent in your region. I don’t mind if you buy the paperback version or even the hard cover if it is available on your Amazon site. Note, if you buy a Kindle version, please be careful that you are buying from the Amazon store your Kindle is registered. Click here to buy the book, and understand why I entitled it:
The Greatest Year in the History of Japan
How The Tokyo Olympics Symbolized Japan’s Miraculous Rise from the Ashes
Ever since learning that his brother had died in an accident at a construction site related to the Tokyo Olympics, Kunio Shimazaki led the police on a wild goose chase, setting off low-level explosions across Tokyo in a run-up to the Games. When the novel’s hero, Inspector Masao Ochiai, confronts Shimazaki at a hiding place in Tokyo University, Shimazaki delivers his monologue:
Ochiai-san, do you know there is an underground passageway into the National Stadium? An underpass to all for the movement of players from underground into the world’s best stadium? The country has spared no expense in the making of it. Due to various pretexts though, the use of it was stopped. My older brother for the sake of constructing that unused underpass was forced into working shifts of sixteen continuous hours. In order to get through those shifts he turned to taking bad Philopon….and died. For the national honor, the country wasted huge amounts of money all while treating migrant workers like trash until they die, paying them only tens of thousands of yen. If we don’t change something here, the unfair gap between rich and poor will go on widening forever. And endlessly the same tragedy will repeat.
Those were lines from Asahi Television’s dramatized version of Okuda’s novel, about an event that never happened. And yet, this dialogue is being echoed today, about the working conditions of the construction sites for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
On May 15, 2019, the Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI) along with the Japanese Federation of Construction Workers’ Union, Zenken Soren, released a highly publicized report entitled, “The Dark Side of the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics.” The report cites great concern regarding overworked and underpaid workers on the Olympic construction sites. In this Kyodo News report, BWI General Secretary Ambet Yuson summarized his concern:
The Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics was Japan’s opportunity to address some of the long-running gaps within the construction industry in Japan, however, these problems have just got worse. Wages remain low, dangerous overwork is common, and workers have limited access to recourse to address their issues.
Mary Harvey, the CEO of the Geneva-based Centre for Sport and Human Rights, and goalkeeper on the 1996 US women’s Olympic soccer squad, told AP that we needed to pay attention to these labor issues.
To think this is going away is burying your head in the sand, and I’m concerned it’s going to get worse. The heat of the summer months is upon us while construction deadlines are trying to be met. Someone dying or committing suicide shouldn’t be acceptable to anyone. Everyone should be taking a serious look at the risks identified in BWI’s report and, by everyone, I mean everyone who is a stakeholder, including the IOC, the Japanese government and construction companies.
The report offers facts and assumptions, which I have organized in the following categories:
Labor Shortage and Overwork
“Japan is currently suffering from an acute labour shortage and this is particularly apparent in the construction sector, where, today there are 4.3 jobs available for every construction worker.”
“Workers on the New National Stadium reported working 26 days in a single month, and workers on the Olympic Village reported working 28 days in a single month.”
“Today one in four Japanese construction workers – approximately 800,000 – are over the age of 60, and the Infrastructure Ministry predicts that by 2025 the industry will face a shortage of 470,000 to 930,000 workers.”
“According to Labour Ministry figures there were 21 deaths from karoshi in 2017 in the construction sector, the second highest of all sectors.”
“…overwork itself creates severe safety risks, as fatigued workers are more likely to cut corners or make mistakes, putting themselves and their fellow workers in danger. One worker commented that he felt he is ‘always being pushed to meet the deadline,” while another said, “It’s not worth your life for this’.”
“Delays (In a variety of construction projects)… in a tight labour market will all translate into additional pressure on workers to meet deadlines, and a higher likelihood of unsafe working practices.”
Lack of Worker Rights
“Some workers were made to purchase their own personal protective equipment.”
“Workers also noted that they have become reluctant to raise their voice because managers do little to respond. ‘You point the issues out and request improvements, but this falls on deaf ears’. According to the workers, part of this problem is likely connected to the fact that the site foremen being dispatched neither have nor has sufficient training to do the work.”
“Two union leaders of Doken General Labour Union reported during the September 2018 International Forum that union organisers were harassed and intimidated by authorities when they attempted to reach out to workers in Tokyo National Stadium.”
Foreign Migrant Workers in Particular at a Disadvantage
“The number of migrant workers in the construction sector almost tripled between 2014-2017, with numbers now reaching around 55,000.”
“In the construction sector most of migrant workers are engaged through the Technical Intern Training Program (TITP). The TITP programme is supposed to provide training for migrant workers in key sectors with labour shortages; however, there has been widespread criticism of it as an exploitative scheme intended to render cheap labour.”
“TITP interns must be paid the legal minimum wage but it is rare that they are paid more, and this is currently set at less than half the average annual wage for construction (~US$40,000).”
“…it was reported that they (migrant workers) spoke no Japanese and communication was a challenge, particularly on OHS matters. Under Japanese law, employers must set up necessary procedures to ensure that health and safety procedures are established in a way that foreigners can understand.
In response to these reports, the Malaysian news portal, Malasiakini, called out to the Malaysian action to protect migrant workers in Japan.
We call for a guarantee from our Government that Malaysian workers’ rights and safety will be protected if they travel to Japan to work. This should include pre-departure orientation seminars on Japanese labour and safety law, and facilitating direct access to trade unions in Japan to ensure they can safeguard their rights on the job. The Malaysian Government must make sure that Malaysian workers are not trapped in a rights vacuum.
This report is likely a concern to the IOC and the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee. The IOC released a statement, saying “We take these issues very seriously and are committed to working with the relevant stakeholders to address them and find the appropriate solutions.”
But with the incredibly tight labor market in Japan, the IOC’s drive to decrease the Tokyo2020 budget, the increasingly tight deadlines for completion of Olympic venues, as well as competition for construction resources from all over the country, including reconstruction efforts in Tohoku in the aftermath of the 3.11 disaster, it is going to be hard to alleviate the pressure on the construction industry.
Tomorrow, May 1, 2019, begins the era of Reiwa in Japan.
Today, April 30, 2019, Emperor Akihito, the son of Emperor Hirohito, will abdicate the throne and be succeeded by his son, the Crown Prince Naruhito.
In Japan, every period of an Emperor’s rule is given a name, and the Japanese commonly used the era name to mark time. Hirohito’s was Showa, and I was born in the year of Showa 38 (or 1963). Akihito’s was Heisei, and I was married in the year of Heisei 2 (or 1990).
Akihito (age 85) is the first emperor in 200 years to step down from the throne, and he does so in order for he and his wife, Empress Michiko (age 84), to live out the remainder of their lives in a more leisurely fashion, without the daily duties of the royal house. After all, Akihito and Michiko, showed Japan throughout their courtship and marriage that they too had to grow and change with the times.
They first met on a tennis court in Karuizawa one day in August 1957. According to The Daily News, Michiko was partnered with an American named Bobby Doyle, and the Japan-US duo defeated Akihito in his partner over a two-hour two setter. It is said Akihito took a picture of Michiko and quietly had a friend deliver it to her. He also invited Michiko to join another tennis match, with the Shah of Iran.
Thus began the famous tennis romance, that blossomed not only for the couple, but for the entire nation. Not only did the royal couple spark a tennis boom in Japan, there was a boom in interest in the royal family. For Michiko was not of royal blood – a commoner who won the heart of the future Emperor, and “Mit-chi” as Michiko was affectionately called, was highly popular. Their eventual marriage on April 10, 1959, complete with a 8.8 kilometer procession through Tokyo in horse-drawn carriage, was viewed by half-a-million people who lined the course, and tens or million more on newly purchased televisions.
In another break from tradition, Akihito and Michiko decided that they would raise their own children instead of the practice of leaving the rearing of the children to tutors.
Thanks to the newly-founded powers of television to bring images instantly and up close to the average person, the crown prince and princess became celebrities of sorts. People were happy to catch a glimpse of them on a tennis court in Karuizawa or at a pizza restaurant in Roppongi. The members of a preparatory committee who hoped to bring the Stoke Mandeville Games to Tokyo also hoped to leverage the star power of the royal couple.
As related in a previous post, Yoshiyuki Kasai, who led the preparatory committee to bring what would become the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics, arranged for Akihito and Michiko to meet the first Japanese to compete in the Stoke Mandeville Games in London, and tell the couple of their experience competing in a foreign land. Photos of the popular prince and princess with the disabled athletes ignited the preparatory committee’s ability to gain support more broadly within public and private circles.
As a result, not only did Akihito and Michiko help make the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics a reality, they were present during much of the 5-day Tokyo Paralympics, not just sitting in the audience, but interacting with the athletes on camera. They single-handedly brought significant national attention to the disabled, and raised the profile of this new international event despite the fact that Japan had just experienced it’s greatest international event, the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, only weeks before.
The reign of Heisei is ending. But the legacies of Akihito and Michiko, including those in the world of sports, will last forever.
Over 80% of the citizens supported it. Some 80% of the infrastructure was in place. It was September, 2013 and Spaniards were feeling good about their third bid for the Summer Olympics.
The organizers of the bid campaign for Madrid, Spain had come in third for the 2012 Olympics, and then finished an excruciating second to Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Olympics. But this time around, three was going to be the charm.
Unfortunately, three was their fate.
Tokyo, Japan won going away, defeating Istanbul, Turkey by 60 votes to 36 at the 125th IOC Session in Buenos Aires, Argentina on September 7, 2013. In the first round of voting, Japan scored 42 votes from IOC members, while Madrid and Istanbul tied at 26, resulting in a run-off match to compete against Tokyo. In the run-off, Madrid was out-counted by the narrow margin of 49 to 45.
Guti (former Real Madrid player): “This is terribly sad, a huge blow, not just for Madrid, but for Spain as a whole.”
Javier Gómez Noya (Triathlete and Olympic silver medalist): “It’s a real shame, because everyone was very optimistic. But another city has got it and all athletes need to keep working hard and prepare for the Games in the same way. It will still be the Olympic Games, even though it’s a pity it will not be in Madrid.”
Jennifer Pareja (Waterpolo player): “We are lost for words, we didn’t expect to draw (with Turkey). It was the worst thing that could have happened. We hadn’t envisaged this, we were full of optimism. We are stunned. We don’t know what to say – everything could have changed and now it’s not going to happen. It’s a shame after all the efforts everyone has made.”
Tokyo, Japan was the oft-described “safe pair of hands,” an economically solvent economy with a reputation for dependability and quality. Yes, Japanese slowly warmed to the idea of hosting a second Summer Olympics as only a little over half of Tokyo citizens supporting a bid for the 2016 Olympics, although that number got into the 70’s as the bid for 2020 rolled around. More significantly, the vote for 2020 came only two-and-a-half years after the disastrous earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, and fears of radiation poisoning lingered in the minds of IOC members.
Istanbul, Turkey was an intriguing candidate, bidding to the be first Islamic nation to host an Olympics, an idea that appealed to the globalists of the IOC. Just four months prior to the IOC vote, protests erupted in Istanbul as people protested government plans to re-develop Gezi Park by barricading the streets and starting bonfires. Police battled protestors in the streets, where thousands were injured a few were killed. The domestic unrest was on top of Turkey’s growing involvement in the Syrian Civil war at their border. Only 11 months prior to the IOC vote, a Turkish fighter was shot down from the sky by Syrian forces in October, 2012.
One might think that if Spain were competing against a nation whose citizens were possibly under threat of radiation poisoning, and another nation which appeared on the brink of war, they should have a distinct advantage.
Alas, Madrid’s bid was seeming more like an impossible dream.
In 2013, Spain’s economy had racked up nine straight quarters of negative growth, and was so in debt that the government had to accept a bailout of 41 billion euros by European banks to get by. The country, in such financial distress, was the last letter in a slew of European nations under economic stress: Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain – with the unfortunate acronym PIIGS.
On top of that, the Spanish newspapers in 2013 were filled by stories of a trial about Operacion Puerto, a sting operation by the Spanish police that started in 2006, revealing the existence of widespread doping by Spanish cyclists, football and tennis players.
After losing the bid for 2020, the Madrid bid organizers called it a day, and declared they would not bid for the 2024 Games.
To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
Even for the Madrid team, it was time to stop tilting at windmills.
I was asked that question by best-selling author, Bob Whiting, for a weekly column he writes for the Japanese newspaper, Yūkan Fuji. My answer to him?
And we don’t have to go too far back in time for a prime example.
It was less than three years ago when the organizers of the 2016 Rio Olympics had to endure an endless number of threats to the reputation of Brazil and the Olympics:
The Brazilian economy had tanked. Police and firemen protested at the airports they were not getting paid, warning people to stay away. There was even significant speculation that the organizers would cut air conditioning in the Olympic Village to save costs.
The largest scandal in Brazilian history filled the headlines in 2016, one that involved state-run oil company, Petrobras, in which officials received kickbacks in return for selection of specific suppliers, kickbacks that totaled some USD3 to 5 billion.
The question of whether the president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, would be impeached and removed hung over the Games like a cloud. (She was removed from office 10 days after the end of the Rio Olympics.)
The site of the triathlon and sailing competition, Guanabara Bay, was so contaminated with human waste that it threatened the health of athletes who would compete in those waters.
It’s impossible for Olympic officials to control the media’s thirst for issues and scandal, but the circumstances of Brazil at the time made it easy for the press to generate negative storylines.
Will that be the case in Tokyo, when the Olympics come to town in July and August of 2020? What are the headlines that could shake Olympic officials or encourage the naysayers?
North Korea Boycotts the Olympics: The Korean teams marched together at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in 2018, and even brought together North and South Koreans on the women’s ice hockey team. But if pressure mounts due to lack of progress in US-North Korea talks to denuclearize North Korea, who knows whether the Olympics will become an opportunity to raise the rhetoric and make North Korea’s participation a bargaining chip?
Magnitude 8.0 Earthquake Hits Tokyo – Olympics Disrupted: The timing of an earthquake just prior or during the Olympics are highly unlikely. And yet, the fear of the big one in Tokyo is in the back of the minds of many in Japan since there hasn’t been one since the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Last year provided multiple reminders of Japan’s vulnerability to mother nature. In an annual vote of the kanji character that bests represent the year of 2018, the symbol for “disaster” was selected. After all, in 2018, 200 people were killed in flood waters across 23 prefectures, dozens perished in a 6.6 magnitude earthquake in Hokkaido, and there were at least 11 fatalities when Typhoon Jebi swept through the Kansai region.
Is there precedent? Yes. The 1989 World Series, when a magnitude 6.9 earthquake struck San Francisco just prior to the start of Game 3 match between two Bay City teams, the Oakland Athletics and the San Francisco Giants.
Officials Deny Bribery Allegations in Black Tidings Affair: A dark cloud in the distance appears to be approaching. The former president of the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF), and longtime IOC member, Lamine Diack, has been held by authorities in France since November, 2015. One of the allegations under investigation is whether Diack and his son Papa Massata Diack, were responsible for payments of USD2 million made from officials in Japan to Papa Diack through a company in Singapore called Black Tidings. It is alleged that these payments, made in July 2013, were connected to bribes that would “help the Japanese capital secure the hosting rights for the Olympic and Paralympic Games,” according to the French newspaper, Le monde. The current president of the Japan Olympic Committee, and member of the IOC, Tsunekazu Takeda, is under investigation for corruption, and may end up retiring from the Japan Olympic Committee in June or July.
Is there a precedent? Yes. A year after the end of the 2016 Rio Olympics, the head of the Rio de Janeiro Organizing Committee and member of the Brazilian men’s volleyball team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Carlos Nuzman, was arrested for soliciting votes ahead of the 2009 IOC session to select the host city for the 2016 Summer Olympics.
Make no mistake – prior to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, there will be a lot of noise, much of it negative. That’s just the reality of hosting a high budget big tent event like the Olympics.
But also, make no mistake – in the end, it is always about the athletes – their stories of struggle, fair play, excellence and achievement – that drive the headlines during the Games. Those are the headlines that will inspire millions of young Japanese, and provide the motivation that propels a select few to future Olympiads.
By the way, the last two paragraphs are what Bob quoted me on at the end of his column – after all, you can’t end a story like this with such black tidings.
The 2020 Tokyo Olympics will be great, and you won’t want to miss it!
“A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.” Oliver Wendell Holmes
The nineteen-year-old landed in Tokyo, Japan wide-eyed.
A rising star in the best women’s athletic program in the United States, Wyomia Tyus had incredible opportunities for a young woman traveling the world, including Poland, Germany, England and the Soviet Union. But nothing prepared her for the crowds of Tokyo, she told me.
I grew up in Griffin, Georgia, where maybe there was 40,000 people, with half of that in the countryside. When we flew in to Tokyo, I will never forget seeing the lights from the plane, so beautiful. And the big buildings, which reminded me of New York. But there were so many people! That was a little scary.
Tyus told me that her coach, the legendary Ed Temple, made sure that his athletes’ lives were more than just running and jumping. He would tell his athletes to experience things, to go on sightseeing tours and see as much as possible. And being in the Olympic Village was eye opening, as she described in her autobiography, Tigerbelle: The Wyomia Tyus Story, co-authored by Elizabeth Terzakis.
Coming from Georgia and Tennessee, not knowing anything but “you’re black” and “You’re white,” and then seeing all these different hues and colors, all these different ethnicities, there was nothing I could do but grow. It made me have a better understanding of people in general – and of myself. Everybody always talks about the differences between blacks and whites, but the truth is, certain aspects of the black and white cultures in the South were pretty much the same: people who came from the farms ate mostly the same, dressed mostly the same, depending on their class. But in the Olympic Village, here were all these people who ate different foods and spoke different languages and word different clothes – they lived differently, and they had a different understanding of the how we lived.
Tyus told me how she could go so long without knowing that the world was so diverse. “It was such a growth period for me,” she said. “I didn’t know these things. How come nobody talked about these things in high school, I wondered.” Having a wide number of experiences and interacting with a diverse group of people became a basic tenet for success in Tyus’ life, and thought she needed her children to understand that. She made sure that she sent her kids to her home, and to her first husband’s home in Canada to experience different ways and thinking. She said her son and daughter were sometimes put off by the way their aunts and uncles talked, and smelled and acted. But their mother had this belief:
Knowing that someone who is so different from you is also a part of you makes you a stronger person. It helps you to be able to appreciate life, to really laugh at life, to see the things that people do as part of a culture. I wanted my kids to know that my dad’s side of the family is different from my mom’s side, and both are different from Duane’s family in Ohio and his grandmother who grew up in Tennessee. This is your family. This is part of you, so you should appreciate difference and not put other people down.
Of course, this tolerance is tested at times, and like mothers around the world, Tyus needs to balance principles with common sense. While race relations in America have improved significantly in some ways, they have stayed the same in others. Like many other black parents, she has had to provide uncomfortable advice to her children about how to behave in the presence of police, as she explains in Tigerbelle:
If the police pull you over, you need to keep your hands on the wheel, you need to say ‘Yes sir’ and ‘No sir,’ and you need to say everything you’re going to do before you do it.
You need to say: ‘Can I roll my window down?’ You need to say, ‘I am reaching for my wallet now.’
You need to tell them which hand you are going to use to do it.
Her son is incredulous, but Tyus feels that in the 21st century it is still necessary for a person of color to be extra careful. She’s known this ever since she first moved to California, a place she knew would be very different from Griffin when she moved West as a 23-year-old – temperate weather, more glamorous, and more tolerant of difference. While that was generally true, Tyus still experienced the discomfort of being perceived as a maid in the elevator of her apartment complex, or stared at for swimming in the pool, as she noted in Tigerbelle.
Before I came out west, I thought it would be different—lots of people in the South thought that. To this day, people in Griffin will say to me, “California? Oh, you could have it so free there!” And before I moved, I agreed. California’s so open, I thought. But no. It’s not. Things are just more subtle than they are in the South. Because a lot of the people in California came from the South. And moving to California didn’t necessarily change their ideas. It just meant that they were surrounded by change and maybe they had to bend a little bit.
Unpleasant as that revelation is, Tyus gained this insight because she changed her environment, interacted with different people, reflected on what she understood, and revised her worldview.
Tyus is not an activist. She’s an introvert. She’s inquisitive. And thanks to a world of experience, encouraged by her parents and her mentors, like Ed Temple, she is very self aware and insightful about the world around her. Tyus is not just the first person ever to win back-to-back gold medals in the Olympic 100-meter sprint. She is a learner and a teacher – and we need more people like Wyomia Tyus than ever before.
“Every new experience brings its own maturity and a greater clarity of vision.” Indira Ghandi
The classic question for children is supposed to evoke the innocent dreams of roles that represent the exemplary memes of the day: president, astronaut, engineer, baseball player, movie star. For Wyomia Tyus, her answer was admirable, but arguably limited:
“I wanted to be a nurse, or a teacher,” she told me. “I really didn’t know what I wanted to be, but I thought I had to say something.”
Thanks to a chance siting at a junior track meet in Fort Valley, Georgia, by the coach of the women’s track and field team of Tennessee State University, Ed Temple, Tyus could begin to dream bigger. Temple made another trip to Georgia to visit Tyus’ mother to convince her to allow her 15-year-old daughter to come to his summer training camps at TSU in Nashville, Tennessee, and train with the women’s team, the Tigerbelles. She was greeted by Temple and the world-famous Wilma Rudolph, the darling of the 1960 Rome Olympics, who sprinted to three gold medals.
Tyus didn’t know who Rudolph was, let alone what the Olympics were, so she was in for an education, not just about track, but about how to think about the rest of her life. “When I went to Tennessee State and saw these Tigerbelles, there was a woman majoring in math,” she told me. “I had never seen a woman teach math. ‘Women make money teaching math,’ I thought. ‘I want to be a doctor,’ another told me. ‘You should think about that.'”
This was the early 1960s, when women were not encouraged to dream about being anything other than the perfect wife for a good man. In an interview with Morning News Anchor Atlanta radio stations, V-103 and WAOK, Maria Boynton, Tyus explained the state of women athletes in America.
In the time I was in school from 1963 to 1968, there were only 8% of women going to college. I’m not talking about black women – 8% of women in the whole US of A that were in college. I feel very honored, very lucky and blessed that I had that opportunity. Today, your opportunities are a lot better, a lot greater. When I was competing, Mr. Temple would always say, “Now you have Title IX. And Title IX gave he opportunity for women to go to college, to get a scholarship at all major universities. You have the same rights that men have, that they have always had. When we were competing, we were Title IX.
Title IX is a federal civil rights law in the United States that was passed in June, 1972, which made discrimination on the basis of sex in educational institutions that received federal funding, illegal. It laid the groundwork for equal access to entry, financial assistance and opportunities for men and women in schools and universities across the country. And as schools began to invest more equitably in athletic opportunities for women, a whole generation of women in America were given the choice to participate and excel in sports. The copious number of gold medals for America in women’s soccer, softball, ice hockey, and track and field among many sports is thanks to Title IX.
But before Title IX, there were very few places that provided scholarships for women athletes. Tyus said that in the early sixties, Tuskegee University and the University of Hawaii had small women’s track programs. But only Tennessee State University was offering scholarships for women in any significant numbers. On top of that, parents were unwilling to send their daughters to universities to play sports. That idea was simply unfamiliar to most. But Coach Temple had the ways and the means to make it work, according to Tyus in her wonderful autobiography, Tigerbelle: The Wyomia Tyus Story, co-authored by Elizabeth Terzakis.
Mr. Temple was one of the few coaches who had the charisma and ability to convince parents to let their daughters run track. And once they did, he had the ability and fortitude to say to the girls, “you could be more than just a track star. This could propel you into your future. Track opened the doors for you, but education will keep them open.” He gave us a dream – something to look forward to. Most of us were coming from poor families, big families. Most of them came from families of nine, ten 0even thirteen or fourteen. Girls wanted to get out of that and make a better life for themselves, and their parents wanted the same. Mr. Temple gave them the opportunity. He saw possibilities for women way before Title IX – in fact, Mr. Temple used to say that his program was Title IX before Title IX. He had a vision, and he let us see it too.
As Temple explains in this video interview, he set very high expectations for the women on his team, in a most public way.
One of the things I stressed was education. After every quarter, I would get the grades of every girl from the registrar’s office. I’d get them in a room and call their name and go over every grade that they had. If you made a D, or a C, I’m going to talk about you in front of everybody. If you made the honor roll, I’m gonna give you credit. And after year two, that word would pass down to the new ones coming in. “Look now, you better get your schoolwork done, because he’s gonna talk about you.”
In addition to ensuring that his student athletes got a university education, he also made sure that they were supporting each other. He understood that there were so few in the country who could relate to the life of a female athlete at the time, particularly black female athletes, so he made sure they believed in the idea that united they stood, divided they fell. When a shoe company said they were sending Wilma Rudolph free running shoes, Temple made sure they sent many pairs of different sizes so others on the team could benefit. When Edith McGuire was taken around Tokyo by the press, expectant that she would be the next Wilma Rudolph in Tokyo, Temple made sure that Wyomia Tyus tagged along and saw the sights.
And he made sure that the senior students took care of the junior students, as she explained in Tigerbelle.
Mr. Temple arranged it so that there were always older girls there to support the younger girls and so that the younger girls got to be in contact with all the older girls instead of just a few. He knew that not everyone would connect in the same way, and he wanted each of us to be able to find someone we liked and could look up to who would help us.
These interactions between teammates, relationships forged in the fires of competition, led to life-long friendships, a sisterhood of Tigerbelles that continues to today.
Perhaps more than anything else, Coach Temple was a great teacher, someone who understood that the only person who could really effect significant change and growth was that person herself, as she explained powerfully in her book.
I think that Mr. Temple felt that he had done his best to prepare us for the world. He always wanted us to be our own people even if it meant bumping heads with him. If he didn’t agree, he wasn’t going to say anything, and if he did agree, he might say one thing, but not much more. Because his main question was always, “Is this what you want? Is this what you believe in?” As long as you weighed it out and thought about the consequences—what else could he ask for?
Some people felt he could have said more, tried to have more influence, but that was not the man he was. If he ever had said more, I would have listened to him, but nothing would have changed. I was still going to be saying what I said. I would say, “That’s me, Mr. Temple. You taught us to speak our minds.” Which to me meant he had been successful at doing the only thing that really mattered to him: making us feel comfortable being ourselves.
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